Baddest Camaro Ever

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2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

I’ve said it a lot in recent years, but it’s worth saying over and over. If you’re into high-performance cars, the “good old days” are back, and actually much better than the old good old days.

Case in point is the new top dog of the Chevrolet Camaro nameplate, the 2012 ZL1. You can walk into a Chevy dealership, plunk down around $60,000, and drive out in a street legal car that carries more horsepower than top racing cars did during the original muscle car era.

Oh, and of course that new Camaro will keep you comfortable with air conditioning, heated seats, a top-notch sound system, and so on. It’ll keep you safe in a crash with multiple airbags and a nice rigid structure, plus it passes all current emissions standards.

First, a little bit of history. Way back in 1969, just about the peak of Detroit’s horsepower and performance wars the first time around, savvy customers who knew about something special could order it from a willing dealer. Such was option code ZL1 for the Camaro, which got you a hand-built all-aluminum 427 cubic inch V8 intended strictly for drag racing. How much money was that option? A staggering $4,000, about the price of an entire nicely-equipped Camaro then.

No wonder only 69 of them were built and sold that year. But the car became hallowed in terms of what a domestic car company was able to do in order to show its might and let a select number of customers compete in professional or semi-pro drag race events.

With interest in muscle cars and their original era now on the front burner again, it was time to call up that nomenclature from the past to grace the bulging hood of the new hot Camaro. There was some murmuring that Chevy could resurrect “Z28” for the car, but that name became a little watered-down in the 1980s as seemingly every other Camaro built got a Z28 badge on it.

Under the new ZL1’s hood is GM’s corporate LSA engine, sporting a supercharger and some splashy red covers. Tucked in front of the radiator is an oil cooler to keep it operating properly in extreme (aka racetrack) conditions, and a dual-mode exhaust system for both free-flowing properties when you need it, and a level of quietness to keep the car usable in everyday situations as well as within the law.

Whether you choose the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission, the engine delivers 580 horsepower, the most any Camaro has produced from the factory. If you want more power from a Chevrolet product, you have to step up to the Corvette ZR1 and its 638 horsepower, but also its $112,000 base price.

For second best (but we’re really splitting hairs once we get into the near-600 horsepower discussion), the base price is then a bargain at $54,995. The car GM let me drive was equipped with a few options and the $2600 federal gas guzzler tax, and carried a bottom line total of just a tick under $60,000 with destination charge.

But really, does anyone need a car with this much power? The only place to truly exercise a car like this is on a track. Fortunately,Southern Californiahas several racetracks within a couple hours drive that will let pretty much anyone with a modern car wring it out in a safe manner.

If you don’t want to do that, or need to brag about having a car with insane levels of power, the Camaro SS with its 420 horsepower and much lower sticker price would do just fine. Heck, the base V6 Camaro makes over 300 horsepower these days, so it could be argued that anything over that is excessive.

But competition breeds excess, though also engineering challenges and bragging rights with the results. Chevy’s arch nemesis Ford is busy rolling out a top-of-the-range Shelby Mustang that makes over 650 horsepower, so it’s “game on” in 2012.

The good old days are here again, but I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep saying that. So if you’re into horsepower and performance, enjoy them while you can.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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